The Great "Progressive Country Music" Scare & The First "Outlaw" Musicians
The "Progressive Country Music" scare
The music business road is long, hard -- and fun! As a rule, folks in the business are a hardy lot, invariably strong individualists and probably the most dedicated, directed individuals I’ve ever encountered. I’m often amused when the press jumps on one of them – sort of like a duck on a June bug – and proceeds to beat them half to death in print. Although a really juicy scandal can ruin a career, most just continue to believe "there’s no bad press" and keep on rollin’ down the road.
Back in the last century (now there’s an age benchmark for you), I was living in Austin, Texas, and "managing" the career of my brother, Steven Fromholz. Actually, no one has ever "managed" Steven -- that’s closely akin to capturing wind in a bottle -- but I was doing his booking, traveling with him and his band and shuffling the somewhat meager finances that kept our show on the road.
It was the time of the great "Progressive Country Music" scare, in Austin, as Steven called it. Armadillo World Headquarters was located there and without doubt, was the hottest music venue in Texas. Every weekend found a big name, or several, gracing it’s stages and the place was always packed. An added attraction was one never knew who was just going to show up, guitar in hand, and join in for the fun of it.
This was back in the day, and again, I quote my brother, "when pickers gathered up their guitars and said ‘let’s go pick’; not ‘let’s go make money.’" The pickers that wore the Progressive Country Music label, in addition to my brother, were the late Rusty Weir, Ray Wiley Hubbard, the late B.W. "Buckwheat" Stevenson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Bill and Bonnie Hearne, Gary P. Nunn, Bob Livingston, Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver and a host of others.
Once an Outlaw; always an Outlaw
There were some stellar musicians that, although a bit younger than the guys previously mentioned, were definitely part of that group. Singer/songwriter/author Vince Bell comes to mind first as he’s one of the finest songwriters and entertainers that ever walked on a stage.
Although Michael Martin Murphy (he only had a first and last name then) wafted in and out of the group; he was definitely among them. They were a hardy group, absolutely undauntable, and loyal to one another to a fault. I’ve seen all of them, at one time or another over the years, help load the other’s equipment after a show, share a hard-earned dollar, and diligently promote each other’s careers.
If there was ever a whit of jealousy, unkindness or pettiness I never witnessed it. When enough of them were in town to put together a private picking session; they’d all gather and run their new tunes by one another. To a person, all of them thought the "Progressive Country Music" label attached to them was totally stupid and likened it to what one stepped in (in a barnyard).
The press coined that label and then proceeded to beat it half to death. I was present when a very young, lady reporter was interviewing Steven in regard to his appearance in the movie "Outlaw Blues." Her questions were not well thought out and the interview was scattering in all directions. She finally asked Steven’s opinion on the "Progressive Country Music" label. Without even taking a deep breath he replied, "Well, you know the root word there is ‘progress’!" The woman printed it, verbatim, and never realized she’d been ditzed by both my brother and her own stupidity.
Although the "Progressive Country Music" label has never truly gone away, it faded a bit when Willie Nelson moved to Austin and joined the gang. Willie colored outside the lines as far as his music, songs and attitude and Nashville had never figured out what to do with him because of those traits. Austin pickers welcomed him with open arms as their music didn’t fit into any certain bin either, they certainly had a similar mindset and Willie soon become an icon among them. His career was far more established than any one of theirs and he recorded their tunes, mentored, befriended and promoted each of them every chance he got.
The late Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard wafted in and out of Austin, as both were good buds with Willie. About that same time, Willie released his "Outlaw" album and the press coined a new label for Willie, Waylon, Haggard and their "Progressive County" picker friends in Austin. They then, collectively, became known as "The Outlaws," which, in view of their attitude and lifestyles was far, far more appropriate.
Nashville loses control - and $$$$$
The Outlaws were then (and those remaining still are) to a man, extreme individualists, brilliant songwriters, musicians, pickers and in-touch-with-reality human beings and they’d all had it up to the last hair on their heads with the Nashville music establishment. At one time or another that music business machine had mistreated them all. Nashville ruled the country music business with an iron hand and made enormous amounts of money off of singers, songwriters and musicians. The music power brokers kept the lion’s share of it in their coffers and doled out pittances to the performers that earned it.
That was one of the reasons Willie moved to Austin; he refused to continue playing the you scratch my back – and then you scratch it again game with the Nashville music moguls, packed his tunes and guitar and headed south! By the time the "Outlaw" movement was in full bloom most of the Outlaws had established their own individual record labels (called "indie" labels), were handling their own business (with the help of trusted friends), managing their own bank accounts and became, in time, their own private entity in the music business. Nashville hollered like a pig caught in a gate and the entire country music business underwent a radical change.
The Outlaws didn’t write the simple "moon, spoon, June" tunes that had been the country music norm up to that point and their tunes took more than three chords to play. They wrote brilliantly and prolifically. Who doesn’t remember Ray Wylie Hubbard’s "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother" that Jerry Jeff Walker first brought to the light of day or Steven Fromholz’ "I’d Have To Be Crazy" recorded by Willie Nelson with Steven singing backup? Not only those two songs, but many, went straight to the national charts and stayed at the top for a never-seen-before period of time.
A lot of the Outlaw music couldn’t truly be classified as country but it wasn’t the standard bluegrass or pop either and was finally called "Americana." Once known as "folk music"; Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and John Denver were/are icons in that field. John Denver was one of the first well known, internationally recognized stars to record one of my brother’s early tunes called "Yellow Cat."
A lot of years have passed since the Outlaws first rose to prominence and a lot of water has run under their individual bridges – some good and some tragic, but they’ve all stuck together and seen the hard times through together. I’ve always felt blessed to have been in the music business back then and, in fact, have always considered the original Austin Progressive Country bunch of musicians kinda like my kids. I’ve shared some strange and humorous times with most of them which, with the passage of time, have become the most precious of memories.
Cowboys + Hippies = Great audiences
Perhaps one of the most unique things that happened back then was the diversity among audiences that followed Outlaw Music. It was a strange mixture of intellectuals, middle class working people, rich business owners, single and married kids trying to get a toehold on life and others that just loved all music for it’s own sake.
The most amazing part of this montage of music fans was the way the rednecks and the hippies joined forces and faithfully showed up at every concert they could scratch two nickels together and manage to attend. The rednecks wore cowboy boots, Stetson hats and were avid beer drinkers. In vivid contrast; the hippies wore worn out blue jeans, t-shirts, sandals and smoked illegal "wacky tobaccy" as their vice of choice.
While being interviewed by an Austin reporter, my brother summed up the whole Outlaw music scene rather succinctly. The question posed was: "Steven, not only you, but all the Outlaws draw a mixed bag of fans – which has never been seen in the music business before. To what do you attribute that?"
Steven didn’t even think about it but answered immediately "Well, the rednecks were drinking beer and the hippies were smoking dope. One night the redneck gave his beer to the hippie and the hippie gave his joint to the redneck and they both liked it so they said, "Hey, let’s drink beer, smoke dope and go listen to some good music!"
For a fact, that’s a pretty accurate analogy. The ever changing music business has splintered off in many directions since those days and I’m now a "gray dog" watching whatever happens next in the industry. I’m not seeing as much generosity among the up and coming players. Most of them seem to be directed, intense and very serious. There’s certainly not as much joking and laughter going on whether onstage or off. Close friendships aren’t visibly evident, although they may exist, but dollar signs and "me first" are very apparent.
Every generation of musicians, as in any other business, finds their own niche and style and learns to adapt to what’s going on after enough miles and disappointments. Steven and I recently went to listen to a young singer/songwriter – who may be one of the most brilliant song writer/entertainers we’d seen in years. We were sitting at a table, towards the front of the small club, when the young man on stage recognized Steven and invited him to come up and do a song. Steven gracefully declined, the show went on and when it was over; we went backstage.
The young man soaked up our praise like a grateful sponge, asked Steven some songwriting questions and began to pack up his guitar and gear as we visited. He was carrying his gear bag and music as we started out the door but was going to have to make several trips to get everything loaded up. Steven just automatically reached down and picked up the youngster’s amp and I grabbed his guitar. We carried his stuff out to the truck, helped him load up and went back in the club to get our coats and leave.
When I went up to the bar to pay the bill our young, musical friend was talking to the manager who had just finished paying him. There was no way I could miss their conversation and I heard the kid say to the manager, "Would you believe Steven Fromholz just carried my amp out to my car? Wow, I’m gonna put that one down in my book; he’s my favorite songwriter."
With a very droll attitude the manager replied, "That’s called ‘class’ kid – take notes!" As I walked out to the truck I kept rolling the statement over in my mind. Without doubt; that was one of the elements I’d been trying to find – and found missing -- in a lot of the younger musicians I’d been observing. Most not only weren’t exhibiting much class but their focus was all wrong. Far too many were picking only in hopes of fame and fortune and didn’t have a clue.
To my knowledge there were no rules among the Outlaw pickers but some things were just understood: (1) speed shows; (2) class tells; (3) don’t get in the way of the song; (4) it’s all about the music and; (5) let’s go pick!
Success or failure? It’s in the loving of the game!
AngelaBlair©2009 All Rights Reserved.
One in a series to be included in the book "In the Music Business You Dance Alone"